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In some ways, Jaxson Hayes was maybe the most unlikely participant at the NBA Draft Combine last week in Chicago. Although he was a four-star prospect coming out of high school and a one-and-done player for the Texas Longhorns, Hayes’ rapid ascent up draft boards happened quickly. As a junior at Moeller High School in Cincinnati, Hayes was a backup and mostly thought of himself as a football player. As a senior, Hayes climbed up to No. 102 in the 247Sports.com composite rankings and pulled in more than a dozen offers, although most of the nation’s highest-profile programs stayed away from the power forward.
The post player needed only five games in Austin to start impressing NBA teams, though. Hayes’ fifth game at Texas was a matchup in Las Vegas against the North Carolina Tar Heels, one of the teams Hayes felt snubbed by in the recruiting process, so Hayes dominated. In just 25 minutes, Hayes scored 15 points on 5-of-5 shooting. He grabbed nine rebounds and blocked three shots. The freshman even went 5 for 6 at the free-throw line. The Longhorns stunned North Carolina.
“After the North Carolina game, that’s when I first saw my name up on the draft boards. One of my friends sent it to me like, ‘Dude, look, you’re up on the draft board,’” Hayes said at the Draft Combine. “That was when I was like, ‘Yeah, I can definitely do this.’ That’s when I started considering it a little bit, started thinking about it a little bit.”
Less than six months later, Hayes made his way to Quest Multisport for the Combine, where he met with teams and took part in some athletic testing. The forward measured as the fifth-tallest player the Combine, checking in at 6-foot-10 1/4 without shoes. His 3.23-second time in the shuttle run was second best among centers, and his 11.74-time in the lane agility drill put him in the top 10.
Next month, Hayes is a likely first-round pick in the NBA Draft and could find himself as a late lottery pick, perhaps around the time the Miami Heat is picking at No. 13. Hayes has already proved he has the chance to be an elite defensive player. His placement in the draft hinges upon his ability to fit in a modern NBA offense.
“I sat back like right before came here. I was like, ‘Damn, I’m really about to go to the Combine.’ A little bit over a year ago, I was just a backup on my high school team.”
What are mock drafts saying?
So much of Hayes’ place as a potential lottery pick is because of his massive upside. Until his senior year of high school, Hayes was mostly a wide receiver and tight end. He started his freshman year at 6 foot before he stretched out to his current 6-11 frame, so he didn’t always plan on being an NBA-sized player.
Even though he only averaged 10.0 points, 5.3 rebounds and 2.2 blocks while shooting 72.8 percent from the field in his lone season in Texas, Hayes theoretically has more room for growth than most prospects picked in his projected range. The agility from his football days should help him switch onto guards, and his experience in a more physical sport, Hayes said, already helps.
“I feel like I’m able to take hits and stuff like that,” Hayes said, “defeat blockouts, stuff like that.”
These skills make take the decision out of the Heat’s hands altogether. Most mock drafts at this stage don’t envision Hayes slipping to the 13th pick.
The two most common projections are for Hayes to either wind up with the Washington Wizards at No. 9 or with the Atlanta Hawks at No. 10. Mock drafts at CBSSports.com and USA Today both like Hayes to be a Wizard, and mocks at ESPN.com, NBC Sports, Sports Illustrated, The Ringer and two others at CBS Sports see Hayes as a Hawk.
As high as Hayes’ ceiling might be, his floor is also lower than some other prospects in this range because he’s a total nonfactor as a shooter. The center didn’t attempt a single three in his lone season with the Longhorns and went just 18 for 46 on all shots other than layups. Once games get more important, players such as Hayes — no matter how valuable they are in other areas of the game — can get run off the court because of a lack of shooting ability.
Although Miami isn’t a position to draft for fit, Hayes’ fit next to fellow post player Bam Adebayo, whom the Heat hopes is a long-term part of its plans, is certainly a question. At this point, Adebayo’s passing makes him an even better offensive player than Hayes, but both project primarily as defensive stoppers able switch out to the perimeter against screen-heavy offenses. It’s hard to see an above-average offense with two nonshooters such as Adebayo and Hayes.
Still, Adebayo isn’t guaranteed to be part of Miami’s future the next time the Heat is a real contender. Hayes at least fits defensively in the direction the league is going.
“I feel like I’ll be able to fit in the NBA right now really well just because I can switch 1-5, run the floor really well,” Hayes said. “The game’s at a really fast pace right now. If you just watch the Warriors play, they’re just going up and down, so I feel like I’ll be able to do good in the league.”
And maybe there is some untapped offensive potential. Hayes was a guard when he started out in high school, so he’s a bit more comfortable with the ball in his hands than some other young big men. Couple those fundamentals with his relatively short time focused strictly on basketball and Hayes believes he can become a real two-way threat.
“I feel like it definitely helped, me growing later, being kind of a late bloomer, just because I was a guard when I was younger,” Hayes said. “I’m working on my offensive game a lot more, working on dribbling the ball up, my shot, expanding my game, expanding my range.”